Europe gears up to fight refugee smugglers

Syrian refugees come ashore. Kos, 28 August. [Freedom House/Flickr]

Hundreds of thousands of refugees have arrived in the EU since last Spring, seeking shelter from war, instability and poverty.  EURACTIV Czech Republic reports.

Their numbers are not decreasing, despite various measures proposed by the European Commission that are slowly being implemented by member states.

Refugees pin their hopes on rich European countries with traditionally open immigration policies, especially Germany and Sweden, which has historically taken in largest number of refugees in the EU relative to its population.

According to the UNHCR, 218,000 refugees arrived in the EU in October. The influx has intensified in recent weeks, propelled by fear of the coming winter. The heaviest traffic is taking place on the Western Balkans route.

More and more, people try to profit off of refugee demand to reach the EU. It is not only people smugglers operating in Turkey, and earning large sums for taking refugees to Europe. Smuggling flourishes on the continent, too.

Earning money

“Many people in many countries make money on the migration crisis. I consider this approach ‘Hyenaistic’,” Czech MEP Tomáš Zdechovský (EPP) told EURACTIV. He says his conclusions are based on authentic experience from several refugee camps in southern Europe and the Balkans. 

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Besides their transport to Europe, refugees bring increased revenues to accommodation facilities, shops and restaurants.

One of the few legal ways to get residence and work permits in EU countries is to achieve political asylum status. However, only several nationalities fleeing wars have a chance to get international protection.

That is why many refugees, some reports contend, try to bypass national authorities and keep their citizenship a secret. They may also buy counterfeit identification, and pass themselves off, for example, as Syrians.

“One third of the ‘refugees from Syria‘ have never been in that country and with false documents they only pretend to by Syrians,” Zdechovský says, referring to Europol’s data.

The fake passports contain all necessary requirements including photos and stamps and they often bear names of Syrians fallen in Syrian conflict. According to press reports, the price of these passports ranges between €350 and €2000.  

Smuggling networks do not limit themselves to Turkey and neighbouring countries, but have been detected, for example, in Afghanistan.

Networks and loners

Within Europe, organized smuggling gangs also see a good business opportunity in the unrelenting influx of refugees.

But there are also many loners, equipped with just a car and mobile phone, who can earn money on asylum seekers.

Europol is estimated to be monitoring 30,000 persons taking part in the smuggling business.

“People smuggling – besides cybersecurity or human trafficking – is among our nine priorities in terms of fight against organized crime,” Deputy Director of Europol Old?ich Martin? told EURACTIV.

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“If we want to evaluate the success rate of fight against organized crime, we have to bear in mind that the execution of criminal policy is primarily a competence of member states,” Lukáš Starý, the public prosecutor representing the Czech Republic at Eurojust, told EURACTIV. 

According to Radko Hokovský of the Czech think tank European Values, exposing smuggling networks is complicated mainly by the fact that the mafia have gotten involved the business, in Italy and in the Balkans.

At the moment, there are two main theories, according to the analyst. One of them says that there is only a limited number of hierarchically-organized groups which could be paralysed by simply taking action against their leaders.

The other theory is based on the presumption that the whole business is decentralized. “It will be very difficult to eliminate hundreds of autonomously operating units,” he says.

The success of the fight against smugglers depends on the ability of member states to share information in a short period of time, according to Martin?.

“If some member states have information leading to the smugglers, they should check it against our database and share it with other countries,” he added.

Thanks to Europol, it is possible to verify if a person has been under investigation in any member state, or if they have been involved in some other criminal activities.

Cooperation with third countries is crucial if we want to resolve the crisis, MEP Zdechovský says.

“We must ensure that people coming to Europe have gone through registration. It is equally important to induce so-called illegal migrants not to even set out for the journey. That is also work for Turkish authorities,” he stressed. 

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